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PoK refugees banging at India's door

Officials at the Centre fear such an exodus can lead to security, diplomatic crisis, reports Neelesh Misra.
Hindustan Times | By Neelesh Misra, New Delhi
UPDATED ON OCT 22, 2007 02:00 AM IST

Amid Pakistan's turmoil, Kashmiri refugees are approaching Indian authorities in Islamabad for passage into India and there are fears that thousands of others might try to cross over forcibly across the Line of Control (LoC), according to the Home Ministry.

A confidential communiqué from the ministry, addressed among others to top security officials in Jammu and Kashmir, was sent a few days before the arrival of Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan and the bombings that nearly killed her. The ministry's note estimated the number of Kashmiri refugees in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) at 15,000.

"While some of the refugees have already approached the Indian High Commission in Islamabad for their expatriation through the consular channel, (the) majority of them are likely to exploit the authorised crossing points on the LC (Line of Control) to cross over illegally," said the ministry joint secretary's note, seen by the Hindustan Times.

The ministry based the fears on "inputs from various intelligence agencies". If such an exodus was to happen, officials noted that it would have the makings of a security, diplomacy and public relations crisis — especially if soldiers open fire to prevent incursions.

Since 1989, when Islamic insurgency erupted in Kashmir, thousands of young men have left their homes — most without even telling their families. They crossed the LoC on foot, assisted by guides, and joined training camps of terrorist groups based there. Many returned to fight Indian security forces in Kashmir, others stayed back to do chores at terrorist camps or odd jobs in urban centres.

But with increasing Pakistani pressure on terrorist camps in PoK and the current political churning in Pakistan, the men — many of whom now have Pakistani wives — are being seen as a liability, Indian officials say.

"Due to the prevailing situation in Pakistan, a significant section of Kashmiri diaspora living as refugees in Pakistan/PoK are apprehensive of Pakistan/PoK government plans to push them back to Jammu and Kashmir," the home ministry note said. It attributed this to the alleged restrictions on the refugees and their marginalisation, as well as the attraction of returning to J&K amid the easing situation.

Terrorists began surrendering in large numbers at the LoC last year. Once almost every two days, a Kashmiri rebel appeared at the frontier -- sometimes with a Pakistani wife and children -- and requested the Army for permission to return to the Indian side.

Almost 180 surrenders took place last year at different places along the LoC. At least 55 had surrendered by June. The large numbers were logged despite mountain passes being blocked by snow through the winter and early spring.

A June 2 story by the Hindustan Times was followed by a government ban on surrenders at the LoC. Still, requests have continued. Last week, a man approached officers of the J&K Police to say that 400 former terrorists wanted to surrender on the LoC. In keeping with the new policy, permission was denied.

Two laws apply to such surrenders. One is the Foreigners' Act, with tough bail provisions and sentences that could range up to five years. The other is the state's own law, the Egress and Ingress Movement Control Ordinance, dating back to the days of Kashmir's maharajahs. Its modern version requires anyone entering Kashmir from the Pakistani side to first take a permit.

The law was invoked in 1946 by the then ruler, Hari Singh, to arrest Jawaharlal Nehru, when he tried to enter the state to seek the freedom of Kashmiri leader Sheikh Abdullah.

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